Snow on Toast
The challenges of surviving the winter on wild food. And not just any winter... this winter!
I haven’t written for a while. What a strange and trying a time it’s been recently. I do feel as if I’ve gone to sleep and woken up with Scarfolk Council in charge of the world.
“W#£$%?& t(&^%$£# f^$%&??!!!” to quote Captain Haddock. I spent much of the Christmas holiday period helping colleagues at Napiers the Herbalists try to adjust our little business to cope with Brexit. There is nothing good in this situation whatsoever. With 25% of our patients in the EU, we now have to fill in a load of customs forms for a system that our products just don’t really fit in to… oh, and a different system for Northern Ireland although apparently there is no border! “PFOUAGH!!!” Delivery companies, customs points - everyone seems overwhelmed.
Anyway, this isn’t the place to moan but I guess it’s a better excuse for not writing my blog than “The dog ate my homework!”
The second big issue has been the snow. Very pretty but rather a lot of it. Here on my little hilltop in Central Scotland there has been snow on the ground almost permanently since 27 December. That’s 40 out of the past 48 days. As I write the sun is shining but the snow outside my window is still 16 inches deep (aka 40 cm). At night the temperature has dropped as low as -15C (5F). So all the outdoor residents at Wychmoss have had to come in.
Missie the long-haired cat has taken up residence in the shower. She is 18 years old now and has lived outside most of her life. As a result she is supremely healthy but these exceptionally cold nights might stop her getting to 19! She has a new bed made from a cut-down cardboard box lined with sheep’s wool packaging that was swaddling a fermented crock sent by the bubbly Martin and Patka from PAMA. Sadly not full of their amazing pickles as I’m only eating wild food for a year.
The three ferrets Duffy, Moshi and Honey - who normally live in an old wooden henhouse with a big run - come in at sundown. They are overnighting in their old maternity crate in the kitchen. The scent of ‘Eau de Mustela’ mingling with the cooking aromas is quite bracing of an evening but easily resolved by sinking my nose into a fragrant elderflower bubbly. Cramped quarters for three of them, I can’t believe just a 8 months ago they were hairless, pink and no larger than my little finger.
I drew the line at the 4 chickens and 3 guinea fowl as they’re not housetrained. So I’ve rigged up a flat panel heater for them in their coop by plugging the heated pad - that I use to start ferments or beer - into the electric wire socket that discourages Brer Fox. The addition of low level central heating has stopped their red wattles from turning grey with frostbite. That should be straightforward except that even in the depths of winter the guinea fowl prefer to sleep outside, under the stars. Given their own way they’d be high up in the oak tree but - because of the bird flu pandemic - all fowl are under lockdown too. So they go to sleep outside on a willow stick perch. As I worry that I will go down in the morning to find them frozen to their perches - reminiscent of Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue - I go out in the dark, through the drifts, to lift them off their perch and into the henhouse. If you wake one up you’re in trouble! Let’s just say that guinea fowl do not like being handled.
The biggest issue right now is FOOD! It is constantly on my mind. Today, I finished the last of the fresh wild apples. Found under a feral tree in the Calder valley, they have lasted in the fridge since early December. The nut basket is also under 20% full. The freezer is still full of mushrooms and wild meat, there are still pickles on the shelves: alexander stems, hogweed shoots, chicken of the woods mushroom and fermented wild garlic, but there are gaps in the rows now. Fresh green leaves are at a premium and when I have them I make gremolata - chopping all the fresh herbs finely, using sea buckthorn juice instead of lemon juice and draining a tiny precious bit of oil out of lasts years pickled mushroom jars. I’m hungry and eating tiny portions. It is not that there is no food - it’s just that I am acutely aware that what I have, just has to last. What if we have another polar vortex or ‘beast from the east’ in March and April? It’s possible.
The feral apples are delicious. They look like I feel some days. Crabby old witches on the outside but are sweet underneath their warty skins. They’ve been fried with some reconstituted cranberries that are now caramelised and sticky, served with a wild goose burger, and the gremolata in which scurvy grass, alexanders and wild leek party together. There are no roots - the snow is too deep and the ground frozen solid.
Normally I would get off the snowy hill, go down to the coast where it’s warmer and the wild plants have a head start to keep up my supply of fresh leafy goodness. But Scotland’s in lockdown and we’re not supposed to stray more than 5 miles from home and especially not crossing county boundaries. We’re all awaiting another announcement but with the spring low tides imminent - the best seaweed harvesting time of the year - something has to give soon. Every one else is allowed to go to the supermarket, right? Honestly, I could have chosen a better year for my wild food experiment but I’m 78 days in and there’s just 287 days to go now!
Luckily plants are resilient and in every sheltered nook and cranny there is life. A little bittercress along the foot of the wall, wild garlic shoots under a thick mulch of autumn leaves, lesser celandine, sorrel, and pink purslane sheltering under the hedges. They die back in the summer when there’s too much competition and have their day in the winter sun.
I look at my Instagram feed and realise that everything I am eating is brown, muted green, grey and dark. It’s bleak at this time of year. Many of the people I know into foraging are posting ‘flash-back’ pictures from colourful finds in seasons past. I am quickly learning that colour on your plate feeds your soul while the food fills your belly. Without it my mood is also muted. Not down but not me.
The most important thing at this time of year is to carry on getting outside. It’s harder to make the effort - and such a palaver with wellies, gloves, scarves, hats - but so rewarding. On a crisp day Nature creeps back in. Through your nose on a sharp, icy intake of breath; through your skin in the gap twixt glove and sleeve; through your eyes as the snow sparkles like sequins, icicles glint like crystal rods. You know you are truly alive!
So wrap up warm and take the plunge. I’m going back to washing acorns :)